Fishkin: Random Assemblies for Lawmaking? Prospects and Limits

James Fishkin’s contribution to the September 2017 workshop “Legislature by Lot” was titled “Random Assemblies for Lawmaking? Prospects and Limits”:

A randomly selected microcosm of the people can usefully play an official role in the lawmaking process. However, there are serious issues to be confronted if such a random sample were to take on the role of a full-scale, full-time second chamber. Some skeptical considerations are detailed. There are also advantages to short convenings of such a sample to take on some of the roles of a second chamber. This article provides a response to the skeptical considerations. Precedents from ancient Athens show how such short-term convenings of a deliberating microcosm can be positioned before, during, or after other elements of the lawmaking process. The article draws on experience from Deliberative Polling to show how this is both practical and productive for the lawmaking process.

Athens, corruption, Deliberative Polling, elections, minipublics, nomothetai, representative democracy, sortition

In arguing for short term “Delibertive Polls”, Fishkin offers three problems with long-term allotted chambers: (1) lack of technical expertise, (2) potential for corruption, and (3) not maintaining what he calls “the conditions for deliberation”.
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Venice and Why Sortition is Not Enough

Without much commentary, given the high level of knowledge and debate on this blog, I share an important document about elections in Ancient Venice. As most here will know, I hold it that ‘pure’ sortition is a suitable and necessary tool for democracy. However, it is also an insufficient one, as has been criticised already at the time of sortition’s outset, with the powerful “Socratic Objection” as documented by Xenophon. Today, I describe the missing element specifically for appointments to positions of power.

As most here will know, the Ancient Venetians combined sortition with elections in multiple iterations to determine their leadership, the Doge. Their success with this add-on innovation was superior to the Athenians, as evidenced by the significantly longer duration of their system. Now, there clearly were flaws, room for improvement, as their system ended by reversal to today’s unfortunate party system but that’s for another day.

So far, most scientific papers on this topic have been descriptive. Now Miranda Mowbray, and Dieter Gollmann of the Enterprise Systems and Storage Laboratory at
HP Bristol expand the debate with this paper on the mathematical properties of the Venetian method in avoiding usurpation of power while still finding the best leadership. The authors have their mind on applications in distributed computing security, but for us here, the advantages for a more mundane topic such as democracy may be good enough to give it some thought.


As an aside, the statutes of G!LT in Austria therefore employ the Venetian model for all executive leadership elections. My rationale is that the party system with its unholy alliance with mass media rewards showmanship and superficiality, as evidenced by the high proportion of TV Actors and Reality Show Stars in top jobs. Instead G!LT’s protocol ensures a reasonably self-experienced, direct, personal knowledge of a candidate’s ability and suitability for an executive position. For those who read German, here to the Statutes of G!LT. For those who don’t there is Google Translate.

Tim Dunlop: It’s time to replace voting with sortition

In 2014 Tim Dunlop had just been introduced to the idea of sortition by David Van Reybrouck. He was “not completely convinced by his [Van Reybrouck’s] argument, but [was] sufficiently incensed by our current parliamentary democracy and its many failures to at least consider what he suggests.”

Four years later, Dunlop has written a book advocating sortition, and has an article in the Guardian that opens with an unambiguous statement:

If we want to fix the way our governments work, the first thing we should do is replace voting with sortition in at least some of our governing bodies.

Like many feel-good reformists, Dunlop puts much emphasis on the potential for fostering deliberation, trust and respect amongst the members of the allotted chamber and by extension, in the population at large. However, bucking the norm among such reformists (including Van Reybrouck), Dunlop’s message is very clearly democratic in the most fundamental sense (i.e., making power representative) and his rejection of elections and its elitist implications is uncompromising.

If we are really serious about bottom-up reform of our democratic institutions, then reforming the seat of government itself in this way, a way that installs ordinary people at the heart of power, is essential. Our neoliberal economy and the representative form of government that dominates our societies do everything they can to divide us from and pit us against each other. A People’s House transcends these divisions and brings us together. The basic concept of sortition is pretty straight-forward, and introducing it as a replacement for voting in, say, the Australian Senate, while leaving that body’s other powers intact, represents, at least administratively, fairly minimalist change. But on every other level, the potential effect is explosive. In one fell swoop, you diminish the power of the parties and that of many of the lobbyists who exist to influence their decisions. You transform the way in which the media covers politics. You hand control of at least part of the legislative process to a genuinely representative sample of the population as whole, rather than vesting it in a bunch of elites and their representatives. You empower people in a way that the current system could never hope to do, and you reconnect our chief democratic institution with the life in common.

Nothing is going to change until the main source of power in our society, our seat of government, is populated by people who are genuinely representative of the society at large. We have been taught forever that the way to do that is by voting, but that is simply wrong, and the quicker we unlearn it the better, no matter how counterintuitive it might seem at first. If you want a truly representative government of, by and for the people, then you need to choose it not by voting, but by sortition.

The people’s voice: as rage and as healing

There’s a spectre haunting Europe … and the rest of the Western world. We have elaborate ‘diversity’ programs in good upper-middle-class places to prevent discrimination against all manner of minorities (and majorities like women). It’s a fine thing. But there’s a diversity challenge a little closer to home which is tearing the world apart. There’s a war on the less well educated.

They’re falling out of the economy in droves, being driven into marginal employment or out of the labour force. This is a vexing problem to solve economically if the electorate values rising incomes which it does. Because, as a rule, the less well educated are less productive.

Still, the less well educated are marginalised from polite society. Polite society even runs special newspapers for them. They’re called tabloids and they’re full of resentment and hate. And yes, a big reason they are the way they are is that the less well educated buy them. They’re also marginalised, except in stereotyped form from TV.

Then there are our institutions of governance. While less than 50 per cent of our population are university educated, over 90 per cent of our parliamentarians are. Something very similar would be going on down the chain of public and private governance down to local councils and private firms.

And I’m pretty confident that a lot of this is internalised even by those not well educated. The last working-class Prime Minister we’ve had in Australia was Ben Chifley who was turfed out of office by a silver-tongued barrister in 1949. Barrie Unsworth in NSW going down badly in his first election as NSW Premier despite seeming – at least to me to be doing quite a good job. But he sounded working class – because he was. I wonder if that was it?

The world is made by and for the upper middle class, those who’ve been to the right schools and gone to unis (preferably the right unis), to get on. The ancient Greeks had a political/legal principle of relevance here which is entirely absent from our political language. In addition to ‘παρρησία’ or ‘parrhesia‘ which is often translated as ‘freedom of speech’ but which also carries a connotation of the duty to speak the truth boldly for the community’s wellbeing even at your own cost (as Socrates did), they also had the concept of ‘ισηγορια’ or ‘isegoria‘ meaning equality of speech.1

In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation represents the political system’s concession to isegoria – toxified as a protest party within a hostile political culture. My own support for a greater role for selection by lot in our democracy is to build more isegoria into our political system in a way that, I think there’s good evidence, can help us get to a much better politics and policy.

In any event, the big, most toxified political events illustrating these problems are, of course, Brexit and Trump – concrete political acts of transformative significance standing before illustrating the power of isegoria as rage. Continue reading

Ackerman and Le Grand: How to have a serious referendum on Brexit and avoid a rerun of the original

Not being British I hesitate to post this entry, but I am advised by an informed source that “this is DIRECTLY on point re your sortition cause, and from perhaps the most prominent public law academic of the past century.”

To me the article seems to be a direct lift of Fishkin’s “Deliberation Day”:

A number of things were wrong with the 2016 referendum, including the disenfranchisement of key stakeholders and the extent of misinformation by both sides. Given that referendums should be informed exercises in democratic decision-making, Bruce Ackerman [Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale] and Sir Julian Le Grand [Professor of Social Policy at the Marshall Institute, LSE] explain how a referendum on the deal should look like.

[T]he government should take affirmative steps to fill the information gap. The best way forward is suggested by social science experiments, including an early one held in Britain. In 1994, Channel Four organised an intensive discussion amongst ordinary citizens on whether the UK should become more or less engaged with Europe. The scientifically selected sample of 238 participants went to Manchester for a weekend to engage in a series of small group exchanges with competing experts for Yes and No, as well as representatives from the three major parties. At the end of the weekend, support for Britain’s increased integration into the EU rose from 45% to 60%. In contrast, support for the Euro did not rise above 35%. Before-and-after questionnaires established that participants became more knowledgeable.

Sortition in Jacobin magazine

Tom Malleson, assistant professor of social justice and peace studies at King’s University College at Western University, Canada, writes in Jacobin magazine that “we need a legislature by lot”.

Some excerpts make the following points. Electoralist regimes are not democratic:

[There is] widespread disillusionment that many of the world’s people feel towards their purportedly democratic systems. [T]he truth, widely known yet rarely acknowledged, is that the American political system is increasingly run not by the people, but by the rich. Plutocracy. Leading scholars of American politics Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page conclude their recent study with the observation that “the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”

The standard reform proposals show little promise to fundamentally improve the situation:

What, then, is to be done? There has long been a conventional answer on the center-left: proportional representation and campaign finance reform — the former to enhance the representativeness of elections and the latter to reduce the distorting effects of money. This intuitive belief that the answer to our democratic problems is enhanced elections runs so deep that it is like an article of faith.

Yet should reformed electoral democracy really be the ultimate aim of our democratic hopes and dreams? Consider some of the places that are much closer to achieving an equitable electoral system, such as Canada, the UK, and particularly Western Europe. Such systems tend to function much more democratically than the US, but they run into the same basic problems with elections.

Money continues to play an important role, biasing elections towards the wealthy. Governments continue to be incredibly unrepresentative of the population — almost always composed of rich, white, middle-aged men. Even in Sweden, the young, the less educated, and the working class continue to be dramatically underrepresented (for instance, blue-collar workers make up about 9 percent of members of parliament despite comprising 41 percent of the electorate).

[T]he electoral process is inherently biased in favor of the rich — thereby undermining the cherished democratic ideal of political equality — because the precondition to winning an election is having the time and resources to communicate with the public and mobilize support, and that will always be done more effectively by those who have more money. This means that electoral democracy, regardless of campaign finance rules, will always be somewhat tilted towards the affluent.

Democracy and elections are incompatible:

If you lived in any previous historical era and told your neighbor that you believed in democracy, they would have understood what you meant. Yet if you had said that you believed in democracy and elections, they would have thought you’d lost your marbles.

For more than two thousand years, it was common knowledge that the only people who wanted elections were the rich and the powerful, since they were the ones who invariably benefitted from them. Those who genuinely believed in democracy, on the other hand, believed that political power must be kept in the hands of regular people and typically advocated the selecting of political positions by lot.

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Lawrence Lessig on deliberative polls

In this interesting and entertaining August 2017 TED Talk, Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor, shows an appreciation for some of what is wrong with decision-making by popular vote in contemporary societies, and for some of the political significance of deliberative polls.

… the answer is not to reject democracy. The answer is to find a way for democracy to represent us better. To give up the idea that when we talk about “we” as in “we the people” we’re talking about what we happen to think now, and replace that idea with a conception of “we” where what we mean is what we think when we are informed and [have] deliberated.

He then indicates deliberative polls provide a “we the people” of the kind he describes, and discusses, in glowing terms, the 800 member deliberative poll in Mongolia on the constitution (at which he was an observer).  He does not (in this video) suggest any actual democratic reforms for the U.S.